Have you ever seen someone so in love that it overflows into everything in their lives? Just so hopelessly in love the they can’t help but smile all the time? Their heart flutters whenever they think of the one they love, which happens often, because the can’t get that person off their mind. It’s all that person talks about. They’re so consumed in their love, it gets on their friends’ nerves. Have you ever seen anyone like that? It’s annoying, isn’t it? It makes you feel uncomfortable or frustrated. Perhaps even a little jealous.
Sure, seeing someone else that in love can be aggravating, but have you ever been that way? It’s euphoric; spectacular; suffocating. You wake up, and you think about that person. When you fall asleep, you hope to dream about that person. All you want in life is to be with the person you love and say to them “I love you.” If you’ve ever emotionally been in love, I think you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Being in love is absolutely wild. In 1 John 4: 7-21, John is absolutely in love with Jesus. The love described above is how John felt towards Jesus, and if you don’t believe me, try reading the gospel of John. Or 1 John. It is impossible to miss the passion in his writing. I can’t read John’s account of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion without tearing up. People who aren’t completely absorbed in love don’t write how John writes. And what does John write about in 1 John? Love.
The second chapter in the book of 1 John is where John first mentions love, opening with a reference to his audience as “My dear children.” Isn’t that beautiful? In 2:12-14, he spontaneously bursts out into poetry, and in verses 15-17, John reminds us that the world isn’t worth our love. The first verse of chapter three might be my favorite verse in all of Scripture. John, who has devoted his whole life to Jesus and has been intimately associated with the truth of the gospel for years, is still blown away by God’s love for us: note the exclamation point. John in overwhelmed by the gospel.
In chapter three, verses 11-24, John now changes his main topic to loving one another. Some highlights of this passage are verses 16 and 18. He says that the best way to identify a Christian is by seeing their love. Love is clearly essential to Christianity. As any man who is nearly incapacitated by love, John changes topics quickly and goes off tangents; hence, 4:1-6. Finally, we arrive at our desired passage, and by this point, we can see that John’s spirit is a blazing fire for Christ. He speaks boldly and bluntly. His language is clear and brief, but the passage is dense and rich with content. It takes time to digest what he’s saying and understand the implications of the truth his words highlight. With that in mind, we’ll take it verse by verse.
Verse 7- “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
It’s too bad that we don’t know who this letter was written to, because John deeply, deeply loved them. He continues to alternate between “dear children” and “dear friends.” We do know that it was written to believers and members of the body of Christ, so really, it was written to all of us. Another brief note, besides the fact that John loved future believers that never saw Jesus walk the earth: it’s nice to think that God considers us to be children and friends. Most of us aren’t exactly friends with our parents, but the Lord considers us to be both a son or daughter and a friend.
Love comes from God. Through that seemingly simple statement, we can gather two incredibly important truth statements. First, Love is real. It is not simply a concept or hypothetical postulation. Love exists and is for us, as we read in Ephesians 3:19. Yes, while biblical love in its ‘fullest’ sense is beyond our comprehension, its existence can be acknowledged and experienced. Love is a fundamental attribute of God, so no man can ever grasp the entirety of love. Yet, God has extended this love to His creation. Love is above us, but is also for us. We’ll talk more about how God’s love is for us later. For now, focus on the fact that love is real.
The second truth statement affirms the existence of God. Since love exists and love comes from God, God also must exist. This argument is simple enough. Consider this now: because love comes from God, love becomes a possible means of learning about God. When we experience biblical love, we gain insight into the very nature of the Lord. Furthermore, if man is capable of love, that gives evidence that man is made in God’s image or likeness. Even non-Christians are capable of understanding love, or at least they can recognize that they desire to love and to be loved. Our very souls were constructed for the purpose of giving and receiving love. As Reverend John Hutchinson asked, “What are we at our cores? Lovers.”
So, as a result of all of this, John says that we should love one another. Since love comes from God and we’ve been told to love one another, there must be some way for us to get love from God so we can love others. Nothing can be given that has not been received already. Before we are told how to love, John explains who has the ability to love. The group he identifies is specific: those who have been born of God and know God, or in other words, Christians.
Isn’t it interesting that John uses the phrase “born of God”? The change that takes place when we become Christians is so fundamental that we are literally “born again.” This new life and body we have is something far more real than the world we see around us. It’s fuller. Think of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest it.
Finally for this verse, I’d like to draw attention to the word “knows.” This word isn’t referring to cognitive recall. Rather than being mere head knowledge, John is saying that we have personally and intimately experienced God. In Shakespeare’s time, ‘knowing’ someone was often a euphemism for engaging in sex. The Bible is obviously not saying we are to have a sexual relationship with God, but let that queue you into the level of intimacy we share with God as Christians. God lives within us. The Holy Spirit has become one with our own broken spirits. Two have become one. What is the result? A child of God.
With that, let’s move onto the second verse.
Verse 8- “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Within the first two verses of this passage, we have seen John draw the line that divides humanity. There are those who love and know God, and those who do not love and know God. There are no Christians that do not love, nor are there non-Christians that do love. If you haven’t intimately experienced God, you aren’t capable of love. If you do love, you’re a Christian. Now remember, I’m not talking about Taylor Swift’s love, or a romantic love, or a mere emotion. I’m talking about Jesus’ love. It’s the difference between mankind’s shadow of love and God’s perfect and eternal love.
Now, to the last bit. John shifts from describing love as something that comes from God to being God Himself. You’d be hard pressed to find an instance in the bible that is more blunt or concise than “God is love.” How do we know what love is? Our very definition of love is found in the Lord. Do not let this confuse you. How can it be an adjective and a noun? How can God both give love and be love? Continue reading.
Verse 9- “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.”
So, God is love. Without even reading past “us,” we should know John is going to talk about Jesus. Jesus is the visible “image of the invisible God,” as stated in Colossians 1:15. He is how God revealed Himself to the world. There are parts of Scripture where “God,” or other terms referring to God, can be replaced with the word “love.” They can be interchangeable. Sometimes, it helps to substitute “God” with “love” (or visa versa) to gain a slightly different perspective.
Love comes from God and God is love. God sends His love to us by sending Himself. We live through love, because we have found life in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and union. Here’s the answer to “What is love?” or “How do we know what love is?” The answer is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Verse 10- “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
I hope John’s words here make you recall Ephesians 2:1-9 and Romans 5:8. God sending His love to us was not prompted by man. God chose to love us strictly out of His good pleasure. We were not asking for it, nor were we deserving of it. Yet, we have received it. Here we see that the Christian’s love is reactionary. Humans can only love after they have been loved.
Here we also see the significance of love in the context of God’s other attributes. Of the three characteristics of God John shows in this verse (love, power, and justice), love is the one we need above all others for salvation. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that God could have loved us and saved us without the power to do so, nor could He ignore justice. What I am saying is that if He hadn’t loved us, He would have been content with letting us take our deserved punishment under sin. Jesus wouldn’t have been necessary without love. Because God loved us, He used His power to fulfill what justice required: the penalty of death.
The phrase “atoning sacrifice” has a nice ring to it, but why would John and the translator choose those specific words? To “atone” means to make amends, or to fix; to make right. To “sacrifice,” at least in this context, means to give up something valued for the sake of something better. Isn’t it nothing short of awe-inspiring that the Lord of the universe considered us worth the sacrifice of His Son?
In my bible, an alternate translation is offered, as well. The verse could instead sound like the following: “…and sent His one and only Son as the one who would turn aside His wrath, taking away our sins.” Both have the same message, but with slightly differing flavors.
Verse 11- “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
John again refers to his audience as “Dear friends,” reminding us that this isn’t some stranger commanding us to live according to rules, but a best friend imploring us to love in reaction to the Gospel. Note how John says “God so loved us.” The “so” emphasizes how passionately, recklessly, and powerfully God loved us through the Gospel. That is the reason we love each other: because we have been loved in an extraordinary way. When you maintain a perspective of life with Jesus at the center, a Gospel perspective, your heart is in a position to love those around you.
John writes that “…we also ought to love one another.” The “ought” is from an internal, self motivated force, not an external one. Loving should be natural, like bearing fruit. And what is the first listed fruit of the gospel, from Galatians 5:22? Love! Even that list was intentionally ordered, which brings me to a brief tangent. Every word, punctuation mark, and tense of every word is intentional in the Bible. There are no mistakes or coincidences. But let’s not get into the accuracy of translations and such; rather, let’s once again concentrate on love.
Verse 12- “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.”
This verse fascinates me, and I love how it opens. It can be confusing to think of why John would begin talking about not seeing God, but it paints a beautiful picture for the Church. Let me reference a commentary that eloquently states what I struggled to put words to.
“So strong is John’s confidence that the Christian community will fulfill this command (to love willingly) that he writes that mutual Christian love manifests the presence and action of the invisible God.” (Smally, 1984: 246 biblegateway.com)
God’s love is made complete in us. Does this suggest that God is lacking in anything? Certainly not. We are the ones who are lacking when we do not love one another. When we do love one another, we can visibly see the work, and therefore presence, of God through our actions. It is in this physical, visible way that we are to be identified. As Jesus declares in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Verse 13- “We know that we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”
At first, that comes across as wordy. That’s why for this passage in particular, we need to slow down and take our time with each verse. The message is worth the patience.
In verse 13, John ties in the third part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. This passage opened up by claiming that The LORD, the Father, loves us, and is the definition of love. Next, we’re told that Jesus, the Son, is how the Father showed us His great love. Finally, John writes that we have confidence in Christ’s love uniting us with the Father because He has given us the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.
The way John writes “He has given us of His Spirit,” seems awkward because of the word “of.” 1 John 3:24 states a similar idea when it says “…this is how we know that He lives in us: We know it by the Spirit He gave us.” Since John is repeating himself, it’s clear that this is an important idea, but what is the “of” for in verse 13?
When it says “of His Spirit,” it is the spirit of God. What we have received is of God’s own spirit. God’s spirit, His own spirit, lives in us and guides us. It’s not some separate entity or middle man. It is God. It’s not an angel, telling us where to go or what to do. It is God Himself. His own Spirit is within us. The Holy Spirit that dwells within me is no different than the Holy Spirit that dwells in any other Christian or that dwelt within John as he wrote this passage. It is all the same God that the Bible speaks about.
It just goes to show us how connected God is to us. Even if He feels distant, the Lord couldn’t be closer. Really think about that for a moment; we don’t have to wait till we die to be united with God. He is with us now. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus, when He walked the earth 2,000 years ago, was referred to as Emmanuel, because He literally walked with His people. When Jesus rose to heaven, the last words He was recorded saying in the book of Matthew are “…surely I am with you always, until the very end of the age.” Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit, which all Christians have received. Jesus is still, will always be, and never stopped being, our Emmanuel.
Now, of course we aren’t physically with God, nor can we see Him, but that is merely a physical barrier. Instead of worrying about the physical world versus the spiritual world, let’s again concentrate on God fulfilling His promises and loving us.
Verse 14- “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the savior of the world.”
John is still tying all three parts of the trinity together, hence the “and.” We know that we are united with Christ because we’re witnesses. We have seen the truth, and we testify in the case for Christ. Don’t let the fact that Jesus walked the earth 2,000 years ago take away your credibility. Jesus never stopped working on the earth.
Lee Strobel is the author of a widely known book titled “The Case for Christ.” Strobel wasn’t a Christian when he began looking at evidence. In fact, he intended to undermine the entirety of Christianity and end what he thought was a primitive defense mechanism and cult following. Instead of proving the Bible wrong, Lee became a witness. In his research, he saw the truth, found the proof, and now he testifies.
Not everyone has the background of research or investigative journalism that Lee Strobel has, but every Christian has proof of the Gospel. Christians need to look no further than at themselves. Paul joyfully declares in 2 Corinthians 5:27 that “anyone who in Christ is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” Not only are you a changed person because of becoming united with Christ, but your life should also reflect that. Personal testimony is extremely powerful evidence. Never underestimate the power of your own story. God’s work in any life is always significant.
Verse 15- “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.”
This verse talks about what I just mentioned. Confession of truth, Gospel truth, is how you become united with Christ. Take note of how straight to the point this verse is. This verse also speaks to “seeing & testifying,” but in a different light.
When most people hear the word “testify” in a Christian context, they think evangelism; the kind where one goes out onto a street corner and approaches random strangers to discuss the Gospel. While the Lord can and has worked through situations like this, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it for several reasons. I don’t think that’s what “testify” means. While evangelism is very important, testifying to God’s love can manifest in multiple ways. Prayer is a perfect time for testifying. Tell the Lord why you love Him, and praise His name for the love He has for you. Worship is another perfect opportunity to proclaim God’s glory. On the basest level, what does “testify” mean? Simply, to declare truth. So with that, “acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God,” is testifying.
If you are a Christian, and you worry about how well you testify to God’s grace, find rest in this verse. If you so much as acknowledge the Gospel’s truth and relevance to your own life, you have been united with God. You are a testimony.
Verse 16- “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us./ God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”
The “and so” in this sentence is functionally equivalent to a ‘therefore,’ so we must ask ourselves the time old question. What’s it there for? Well, there’s two consequences of acknowledging Jesus is the Son of God. The first is that you know God’s love. If you didn’t notice before, verse 16 is the first verse to mention knowing love, rather than loving God. It’s sequential: know God, then know love. The next consequence is that we rely on God’s love. John is about to expand on this thought. We rely on God’s love to have confidence in our salvation.
This verse is different because it is split between two paragraphs. That normally doesn’t happen, so why was this verse organized this way? Let me give my opinion. It’s split because the first sentence serves as a ‘therefore,’ like I already stated above. The second sentence serves as a brief summary of verses 7-15 before addressing a new consequence of God’s love. They’re not two separate verses because their ideas are practically identical and they both work as a nice transition.
It’s good to note that in verse 16, John boldly declares that “God is love” for a second time. The second sentence in this verse continues to reiterate that God is indefinitely tied with love.
Verse 17- “In this way, love is made complete in us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgement, because in this world we are like Him.”
“In this way” refers to the assurance of our unity with God that is confirmed when we live in love, as stated in the previous verse. Here is the second time John writes that love is made complete in us; the first instance was in verse 12. Our unity with God completes the love in us. It fills the ‘God-shaped hole’ that sin left. This time, we see a different consequence of our love being completed. In verse 12, we saw the manifestation of God in presence and action (refer to the notes on verse 12). Here, we see that we gain “confidence on the day of judgement.” Love gives us assurance of our salvation.
The opposite of love is fear, and when we live in fear, we doubt and question what our eternal destiny is. The gospel gives us a counter to that fear. Jesus’ death answered sin’s penalty, and His resurrection gave us hope. Our repentance and reception of the Holy Spirit confirms our hopes, and our love that we live out is evidence of our turning to and receiving the Gospel. Now, as a Christian, one has no basis to fear eternal condemnation.
In verse 17, John says love is made complete “among” us, while in verse 12, love is made complete “in” us. What is the difference? Well, in verse 12, love is made complete in our souls because we have been united with Christ; it’s more about God changing YOU. The emphasis is on the individual. In verse 17, the usage of “among” suggests that God’s love is responsible for a corporate transformation. God’s love has interacted with US ALL. The definition of ‘among’ is “occurring in or practiced by members of a common community, involving members reciprocally.” (www.google.com/#q_define+among, 3). Not only have have we, as Christians, been reconciled to God, we have also been united with each other in the confidence of our salvation through God’s love.
The verse concludes with a ‘because’ statement. We can have confidence because “in this world we are like Him.” We are like Jesus in the sense that we are dead to sin and risen with Christ in glory. It reflects the themes of Romans 5-7 and Colossians 3:1-3. We are like Him also because we were created in His image, but this verse refers to our assurance of salvation. As a brief side note, I love how it says “in this world,” because it draws an implicit statement that we are different from Jesus outside of this world. Think over that for a minute.
Verse 18- “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Not unlike the rest of the verses in this passage, verse 18 is chalk full of gold. Verse 18 has the first mention of fear. Fear is brought up because the weight of the previous verse’s meaning is easy to miss and hard to accept. Before we get into that, though, let’s simply acknowledge what fear is.
The Bible can come across as flip-floppy on what fear is, especially when transitioning from Old Testament to New Testament. In the Old Testament, fear of God is often acknowledged as a good thing; even a necessary thing. Here, we see that one’s fear seems to be proof of ‘unfulfillment’. So what’s the deal? Proverbs is helpful when discerning the truth.
In the book of Proverbs, “fear” is written eight times; more than any other book in the Bible. Seven of those eight times refer to “fear of the Lord,” and it seems that every mention of this fear is good. In Proverbs, “fear of the Lord…
- “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (8:13)
- is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10)
- adds length to life” (10:27)
- is a fountain” (14:27)
- teaches” (15:33)
- “through fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (16:6)
- leads to life” (19:23)
So, if there is no fear in love, and God is love, and fear of the Lord is good, there has to be a disconnect. The fear mentioned in 1 John 4:18 is not the same kind of fear as the “fear of the Lord” mentioned in Proverbs. Rather, I think the fear in 1 John is closer to the fear mentioned in the last use of “fear” in Proverbs, in chapter 29, verse 25. It reads “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” This fear, portrayed as a snare, contrasts with the holy reverence that gives us a right perspective on God.
Let’s think about the picture of fear depicted when we combine the ideas of these two verses. If we think about what happens when we don’t live in love and trust in the Lord, then we are in danger (Proverbs 29:25) and threatened by punishment (1 John 4:18). Since love is the Gospel, if we are made complete in love, punishment is no longer our reward. We receive grace and eternal life in Jesus. No questions asked, no turning back. When we are completed in love, we are in Jesus’ hands and kept safe by the Lord. Jesus completed the Proverbs.
Now, if there is any remaining doubt or fear, hear this and put your fears to death. The reason we deserved punishment was because of sin; we separated ourselves from perfection. In 1 John 4:18, it is confirmed that love has made us perfect again. There is nothing left to punish. Rest easy, Christian. Jesus has perfected you.
Verse 19- “We love because He first loved us.”
By this point, verse 19 will probably seem like basic stuff. It’s all just a restatement of what was said in verse 10 and follows the theme of the rest of this passage. If nothing new is being shared, what is verse 19’s significance? When something is repeated in scripture, it usually means that it is too important to miss. I think it’s a common tendency when reading to skip over repeated ideas, and think “Yeah, yeah. I know. I got it the first time.” Never take the scripture for granted.
In this case, we are told a beautiful truth that has serious implications. God loved us first. His actions and His initiative are what saved us. Our love is responsive, and we can take no credit for His love. His love allowed us to love. That right there is a blessing, and when scripture repeats a truth so beautiful, it gives us as readers another chance to bask in the glory of that blessing. Drink it in; it goes down smooth.
John is also reminding us of this key point as he works toward his next thought. It may seem like this verse points to the conclusion of this passage, but that wasn’t how 1 John was originally written. It’s important to remember that the original letters that make up the epistles weren’t broken up into chapters, subsections, and verses. Those were added by translators for the purpose of organization. John’s train of thought continues into what we call chapter five. That’s why I said verse 19 transitions to a new thought, not a conclusion.
Verse 20- “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
John once again comes out with blunt language. At first, I questioned who specifically John was referring to when he wrote “brother.” I thought, perhaps it could be a literal blood brother, or maybe it was in reference to what Jesus called our neighbor. By looking ahead to verse 21, it is clear that John meant the latter; “brother” is equivalent to “neighbor” in Matthew 5:43.
Love is far more than lip service. In verse 11, I pointed out that when John says “we…ought to love one another,” he really means that loving each other is necessary. Here, he confirms that. At face value, this verse could be interpreted as saying that for anyone to love God, he must first love his brother, but this is not the case. Rather, John means that loving our neighbor is always a consequence of loving God. In forming a logical argument, this verse fits the structure of denying the consequence. Let me paraphrase to make this clearer. If one loves God, then one must love his/her neighbor. If one doesn’t love his/her neighbor, it logically follows that he/she cannot love God.
John also draws the distinction between visible man and invisible God, both of which he has previously mentioned. In chapter 3, verse 17, John writes a verse similar in message to this verse. We are called to love our brothers in a very real way, not in words, intentions, or emotions. Such a love is described in 1 John 3:18: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” It is in this love that the invisible God is made manifest and complete in us, as John writes in 1 John 4:12. His writing is cumulative, and it can be helpful to look back on what he has already said. John references himself a lot.
Verse 21- “And He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Verse 21 is a continuation of the last verse, but puts backing to John’s claims. Now John invokes the word of the Lord Himself; this is a clear repetition of Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. My Bible draws the connection to Matthew 5:43-48, where Jesus commands His followers “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Remember: love is not a chore, nor is it forced. It is a fruit of the spirit. The Holy Spirit has given us the capacity to love our enemies. Jesus wasn’t forced to die on the cross. The love that sent Him there is the same love we have, and through that love we are compelled to care for our neighbors whom Jesus died for. The love in 1 John 3:18 is the love we are called to.
So, what should we get out of this verse? What’s the big message? What are my three points? Honestly, I don’t have any grand closing statement. The word of God speaks for itself. We are called to love because we were first loved. And what is love? The gospel. Through the love receive, we are indefinitely united with God and need not fear punishment. Love has perfected us. Loving others comes naturally when we live in God’s love. The love we are called to show the world is one of action and truth, not words. Don’t you just love love?